Strength Training for Distance Runners (5K, 10K, Marathon) | Should You Lift Weights?
Can you lift your way to long-distance glory?
If I told you the secret to running a sub three-hour marathon didnt rely on running at all that the key lay in split squats, chin-ups and dumbbell chest presses youd probably think I was mad.
But thats the principle at the heart of my twelve-week training plan for the Virgin London Marathon 2014, where Im on a mission to break three hours on April 13.
Rather than spending all my training time lacing up and logging miles, Ill be shifting some of the focus to hitting the gym and building muscle.
There are, of course, hundreds of marathon training plans out there, from the Hansons method of running innumerable marathon-paced miles to Pfitzingers high mileage approach. But until now, despite having breasted the tape after 26.2 miles over 10 times, Ive never followed a prescribed marathon training plan.
For me its always been a haphazard mix of fast-paced midweek six-eight milers combined with the obligatory long, slow Sunday plods. Last year I threw in some hills for good measure.
One things for sure, though, Ive never set foot in a gym with any intention other than pounding out miles on the treadmill. The weights section is alien territory.
Thats about to change. My coaching team, the London-based endurance experts Fit.as, have given me a new approach that combines detailed body analysis like metabolic and VO2 tests to understand my energy use with a training plan anchored by the principle that to go faster, youve got to be stronger as well as leaner.
So, the first phase of my 12-week training plan is all about building solid foundations. The kind that will deliver power over 26.2 miles, improve my running efficiency through better form and turn me into a lean, mean, fat-burning machine.
At the start of my training three weeks ago I weighed just under 86kg. Despite my ultra running exploits I had a midriff that would kindly be described as wobbly. Im fairly stocky but you certainly wouldnt call me muscular.
Over the last 21 days Ive been doing four hour-long sessions of strength training, split between upper and lower body work on different days. Ive also been doing five running sessions. Do the maths and youll soon realise that requires double training on four days. Its been tough. A typical lower body workout includes a mixture of Poliquin step ups, cable split squats, leg curls, calf raises and leg presses.
For someone whos new to this world, its been fairly daunting. The 6am early starts are one thing, but being thrown into the world of serious lifters before dawn not to mention learning the techniques, trying to find a rhythm and coping with being a weakling has made me feel completely out of my depth. The temptation to drop the barbell and flee to the comfort of the treadmill has been overwhelming.
But Ive stuck to it. And Im starting to see results. I currently weigh in at a more svelte 79.8kg with a lower body fat percentage to boot.
From not being able to do a single chin-up, I can now do three. Im increasing the weights for each exercise too.
But this isnt all down to hard work in the gym. Ive been putting in the hours in the kitchen and supermarket, too, following a very careful diet. Im loosely eating a gluten-free Paleo diet, cutting out grain-based foods, sugar, dairy, legumes and alcohol (aside from the odd glass of wine), and adopting lean meat and veg as my new best friends.
Sounds horrible, right? I thought the same, but its been a revelation. Rather than restricting my meals its brought in huge variety. Im trying new things, eating four times a day and really enjoying my food. The only thing I really miss is crunch. Theres little that delivers that texture like crisps or a round of poppadoms.
But the real benefit is how Ive felt on my runs. My cardio training sessions have varied in distance from 4km to 28km, all run at very specific heart rates and each focussing on one of three goals: recovery, endurance base training or aerobic capacity training.
Ive increasingly felt light, more upright and with a form thats much more refined. This may well be a placebo effect, we wont really know until I take on a pace-testing run later in February, but my confidence is certainly growing and thats key to pulling off a personal best.
Kieran Alger is running the Virgin London Marathon 2014 with Adidas.
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